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How If-Therefore Is The Best Way To Approach Your Story’s Plot

Using the combination of if-therefore is the perfect way to create causal relationships between the choices your characters make. Writing coach, editor, and screenwriting specialist Rebecca Hales explains how you can use if-therefore as the best way to approach your story's plot.

You may have gone into writing because you either can’t or don’t want to math (that’s right, as a verb). However, when it comes to creating a plot for your novel or screenplay, it’s all addition, baby, and—in good news—it’s the kind you can absolutely handle. It only involves the simple use of “if/therefore” which is the best way to approach your story’s plot.

When you’re ready to zero in on designing what your story is about, you can use this easy bit of 1+1, making approaching your plot easy, ensuring it’s uniquely defined, and helping you as the work’s creator focus your attention on writing the narrative clear to the end in exciting ways.

Using if/therefore is the easiest way to think about approaching your story's plot

A causal relationship in a story is like a chain: not only does each link of the chain follow the one that came before, but as it’s added, it physically wraps itself around the previous link like two arms in a hug. This is how plot is formed in all stories, and particularly in screenplays.


The thing that moves your protagonist (and the story at large) is their acting upon desire or striving for a goal. Every decision they make toward achieving that goal, whether it’s to climb a mountain or become the top performer in a sport or get a sandwich for lunch, propels them forward.

Will your story’s protagonist get distracted and develop (consciously or unconsciously) micro goals? Of course.

On Sara’s way to get a sandwich, she might stop to pick up a magazine sporting her childhood nemesis on the cover. She wants to torture herself, and that micro goal takes her away from the primary goal of sandwich procurement (or getting to the mountain, getting a cab to work, etc.). 

While sidesteps like this make for great tension, the “A” plot, which is that strong and clear chain link that guides the story, is the primary one that moves things along and keeps your reader leaning in and engaged.

If you’ve heard the creators of TV show South Park Trey and Matt Stone talk about “But/Therefore” you can see that their advice nicely nestles in a more micro way into this larger chain link. 

metal chain

The if/therefore algorithm allows you to design the outcomes of each step of the way (or each link in the chain). If you have a character who chooses X, and the consequences to their choice would then be A, B, or C, and your character chooses a C, that immediately pushes A and B off the table.

By having your character choose C, you’ve taken the wide landscape of potential story and narrowed it down, focused it, so you know exactly what’s going to happen next. Easy-peasy!

Throughout the story, you will make those kinds of choices for your characters, and that, friends, is really the big secret to plotting out your story: Choosing things to happen to your characters.

Hasn’t everything already been written? (Nope!)

If/therefore is the antidote to that old refrain people sometimes lean on when they are afraid to stick a toe into the chilly waters of writing. 

We get it; it’s natural to be nervous about new things, but this one excuse is one we can bat away because it’s unfounded. There are as many stories and ways to tell them as there are human beings on the planet. 

It’s OK to be nervous about trying a new thing, but the new writer can rest assured that you will be making choices for your character, and designing the consequences as a result of those choices, in ways unique to you and your story.

broken blue ice

As an example:

If you and your best friend, also a writer, are both writing a story that takes place at a gymnastics tournament, and both of your characters’ goals involve competing (and placing) in the event, your protagonist’s consequence could be that they succeed and win the silver medal, while your friend’s could be that her protagonist gets injured and ends up going to rehab.


One common situation (the “if”) with two very different outcomes (the “therefore”).

For the first protagonist, their “therefore” could then be that they go to regionals, make the national team, or even go on to the Olympics.

For the second protagonist who gets injured, there’s a whole other series of consequences, or thereforeses, that could be available to the character:


  • Where do they get the physiotherapy?
  • How long does it take them to recover?
  • Do they go back to gymnastics or change their major to physics and go on to work for NASA or develop an addiction and have a long difficult struggle ahead?

    (or, or, or or. The list is endless!)
long road between tree-covered rocks

If you want to be sure to keep your plot fresh and engaging, ask yourself, “What if?” then take the path least tread. Surprising yourself or choosing something risky/unusual is always going to yield the most interesting plot. 


Using if/therefore keeps your choices clear and your writing process breezy

When you’re writing, you want to create a narrative environment so that every decision your character makes leads to a particular set of consequences, thus narrowing your options as a writer and making your life infinitely easier. Every time your character chooses a consequence, you get to close the door on all the other available options.

It’s like looking down a paper towel tube. Or shopping at a tiny grocery store. There can be comfort in not having unlimited choices.

This is a reassuring situation for you when the entire world is viable material! By reducing your options to only 1, you have the best chance at focusing on making that 1 option count.

If/therefore is the best way to make the chain link, and link strong, taking your story into engaging territory.

It makes writing out a storyline (the events that line up from beginning to end) and a plot (the causal relationship between those events) far easier, ensures your work is singular and fresh, and helps keep you feeling focused and strong the whole way through.

woman with brown hair

by One Lit Place writing coach, editor, and middle grade fiction & screenwriting specialist Rebecca Hales.


Interested in working with Rebecca? Please reach out to see how she will help you whip your stories into shape, making them dynamic, fresh, and saleable. 

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